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If *actions* become *thoughts* and thoughts become *words* as Jean Piaget so eloquently argued in his book "The Origins of Intelligence in Children" (1952), then the more actions a child has and uses socially, the more thoughts and words he is likely to develop. One of our first questions when we assess a child is, "What is he doing?" We assume that the more a child does, the more he knows, and thus the more he has to communicate about. In our work, we take care to point out to parents and professionals the child's actions and sounds that often go unnoticed. These are the seeds of future communications. The more sensitively we notice a child's little actions and sounds, the more likely the child is to make them again and perhaps to make them more like our own. Therefore, when an adult tells us, "I can't think of what to do with my child," we say, "First look at what he is doing, follow his lead, and then do something that keeps him doing his things with you."
A disturbing sight is a child who plays in the same ways with many objects. He must learn that different things require different actions, but he must not be taught to do things in the "correct adult" ways at first. Any new action, if safe, is good for learning. You can encourage your child to explore actions and sounds by playing around with changing them yourself. If a child is to learn the countless combinations of actions and sounds he needs to become a communicator, he must learn that it is not only acceptable, but necessary, to experiment fully with the actions and sounds he already has. Therefore, interact with him in ways that increase, rather than decrease, his attempts to make actions and sounds with you. Keep doing whatever you do when your child continues to act and sound, and consider reducing what you do when he reduces his actions and sounds.
Only after your child can perform a range of actions and sounds randomly or with little apparent purpose should you begin to look for purpose and meaning in his behavior. A child is likely to perform actions meaningfully if he has already explored these actions freely and discovered personal meanings and uses for them. The more meaningful his actions, the more ideas he may have. And it is his playful ideas that may be the easiest things he can first communicate about.
It is important to realize that it does not matter so much if your child uses things in the "right" way as that he tries to do something purposefully. Here is another skill to observe. We often begin playing with a child in the old ways he plays with things, so that he attends to us, and then we gradually show him new ways. A child who uses a knife as a spoon does have a meaning in his actions. We might use the knife the way he does, then show how he can cut. Then we may give him something that can be cut and hold up the knife. Not only does he learn a new meaning this way, he learns a way to communicate about cutting.
We are often excited when a child imitates, or better yet, shows pretend play. Eventually we hope for words or gestures and signs, which are symbols. A symbol is anything that stands for or represents something else. So when a child takes a paper as a blanket for putting her doll to bed, she is showing a symbolic behavior. She can make the paper stand in for a blanket, just as words will later stand for other things. If we allow anything to be a symbol for anything else, however unexpected, children enjoy the game and often stay for more. Surprises appear to be reinforcing for many children; they stay and signal us to do more. We find that we can keep a child taking turns by doing a variety of symbolic play even when the child is not yet symbolic in his play. As a child eventually begins to use old actions for new meanings, he is freed from his learned set of skills and can multiply them. Then his interactions become more flexible, communicative, and rewarding to both him and his partner.
Ask yourself this question: Does my child have the physical skills to do what I am expecting him to do? In our daily routines or enthusiastic play, we often find that we do things a child could not try to do. We are several steps ahead of him on that learning staircase. Once you attend carefully to your child's skills, you can begin to match your level of behavior to his. Then when you are doing things he can do, you are likely to find him staying with you longer and trying to do what you do.Dr. Jim MacDonald (Becoming Partners with Children, 1989) pages 121,122